Karsa Orlong is a proud young Teblor, and has grown up listening to the tales of his grandfather. He has heard of daring raids on other villages, where the menfolk were slain and the women raped, as is right of the strong. He has heard of how the tiny children of the lowlands are weak and deserve only to be attacked, for such is the duty and right of the strong, and he has heard of the plunder and glory one such raid might bring him. Against his foolish father's wishes, he sets out on such a raid with his two closest companions, a bloodwood sword and a supply of blood-oil to keep it sharp with — but while the Teblor Karsa is a mere pup at eighty years of age, to civilization such a period of time is enough for mighty empires to rise.
Years later, the newly-appointed Adjunct to Empress Laseen, Tavore Paran, arrives in the Seven Cities with the 14th Malazan Army. Following the Chain of Dogs, the Army of the Apocalypse has withdrawn to the center of Holy Desert Raraku, where Sha'ik Reborn is gathering her forces in the ancient city at the center of the Whirlwind. Despite consisting almost entirely of fresh recruits, the Adjunct orders the 14th to march in pursuit of the veteran Dogslayers and towards the center of Raraku.
Ganoes Paran, now Master of the Deck, realises that the Crippled God is seeking to gain recognition as a god in the Deck of Dragons, and as its Master, it is Ganoes' decision whether such a terrible god may gain recognition; a young man named Cutter is sailing on a small skiff to a legendary island to do the bidding of Shadowthrone; and on a distant shore on the edge of a broken realm, an oddly solitary T'lan Imass comes upon a man with a shaved head who was exiled and left to die by a people thought myth.
Followed by Midnight Tides.
House of Chains provides examples of the following tropes:
- Army of Thieves and Whores: The 14th Army. Most of them are press-ganged from Malaz Island as the Empire was already stretched to the breaking point before the events of Deadhouse Gates and Memories of Ice (where no less than four Malazan armies are decimated/desert). These conscripts are greeted by barely a hundred Wickan survivors of the Chain of Dogs (all children and teenagers), a paltry garrison that had to watch as ten-thousand Malazans surrendered and were crucified outside bowshot of the city walls, and they are led by an Adjunct who only just got the job by very publicly selling out her younger sister, Felisin, in a public culling of the nobility. Morale is borderline mutinous before they get off the boats at Aren.
- Barbarian Hero: Karsa Orlong is, per Word of God, a deliberate Deconstruction of the "barbarian fantasy", and Karsa's viewpoints are as a result not heroic in any sense of the word.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Karsa Orlong and his war party free the trapped Forkrul Assail from beneath a stone slab in the opening chapters. Sister Calm thanks them by tossing Karsa like a rag doll and punching Delum Thord with enough force to leave him brain damaged. She casually walks away, never to be seen again- until the Series Finale.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: Karsa Orlong's culture uses rape as a social reward, considers people of other species fair game — calling them "children" — and sees weakness as something to be exploited. Karsa's adherence to these customs is considered extreme even by his friends. Thankfully, he moves away from this as he undergoes Character Development.
- Dramatic Irony: Adjunct Tavore sends agents to track down her sister, Felisin, who was supposed to be smuggled away from the Otataral Mines by a member of the Talon. The reader knows that Felisin is now known as Sha'ik Reborn, and stands in direct opposition to Tavore and the 14th army. In the end, Tavore kills Sha'ik Reborn in a duel, and the agents, having realised the truth, decide against telling her, with Tavore never suspecting.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Karsa may start out the novel as a serial rapist, but he is appalled when he finds out about Bidithal's paedophilia and abuse of Felisin Younger. It's entirely unsurprising when Bidithal winds up dead at Karsa's hand. This effectively commemorates Karsa's transition into an Anti-Villain (he ultimately ends up an admittedly dark Anti-Hero).
- Everybody Knew Already: It is completely obvious to both the reader and the characters what Sergeant Strings' real identity is. The novel doesn't even try to hide it, mentioning the name "Fiddler" in his internal monologue in his very first appearance as "Strings". Halfway through the book the rest of the cast tells him to knock it off. Fiddler — after a brief moment of indignation when he realises how poor his disguise is — reluctantly drops the act, at least around his closer comrades.
- Everything's Better with Dinosaurs: Karsa Orlong and Torvald Nom stumble on a hermit on the Ehrlitan coast of Seven Cities, where he's built a giant tower which acts as a kind of scaffolding for a huge dinosaur (possibly T-Rex) skeleton he's rebuilding within. This comes out of nowhere, has no bearing on the plot and is actually incongruent to any of the worldbuilding that's happened up to this point in the series, considering anything big and scaly had so far been shown to belong to the resident Lizard Folk races of the K'Chain Che'Malle or K'Chain Nah'ruk. But the skeleton is way too big to be one of those and besides, the entire chapter runs on Rule of Cool.
- First-Episode Twist: House of Chains gives us the new character Karsa Orlong, who is revealed to be Toblakai from Deadhouse Gates at the end of the first of four sections in the book.
- Goldfish Poop Gang: The Tiste Liosan Trull and Onrack encounter on their journey are mostly portrayed as humourless twits and are consequently ridiculed. Not even the other characters take them seriously, despite them being so rarely seen nowadays that their existence is considered mythical.
- Groin Attack: Karsa kills Bidithal by tearing off the latter's genitals with his bare hands, then shoving them into his mouth.
- He Will Not Cry, So I Cry for Him: Trull Sengar cries when they are told that Onrack the Broken's former wife, aka the Goddess of the Apocalypse, has died, because his newly found friend is physically incapable of tears. Even if he were, it would be against his cultural norms, so Onrack is genuinely taken aback by the gesture.
- Karmic Death: Karsa Orlong kills the paedophile priest Bidithal by ripping off his privates and stuffing them down his throat.
- Living Memory: Not a character but still effectively this trope. While looking for his father Osserc, the mage L'oric is pulled into the a living memory of the Raraku desert, where Osserc is hiding. The memory goes so far back into prehistoric times that the notoriously dry Raraku is a lush swamp there.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: About a quarter of the villainous machinations in the Series Finale are set in motion all because Karsa Orlong lifts the boulder off of Sister Calm.
- Origins Episode: The first quarter of the novelnote gives the background story of Toblakai, a minor character from Deadhouse Gates.
- Pedophile Priest: Bidithal. Even Karsa is appalled, which leads to one of the most satisfying cases of Pay Evil unto Evil in the series.
- Portent of Doom: During their first training exercise, the 14th Army watches as the toddler Grub play-marches up to the Adjunct's side and begins mimicking her movements and commands- waving a bleached bone around instead of a sword. The sight sinks the morale of the 14th from bad to mutinous within hours.Fiddler: The sign couldn't be clearer. We're a [mob], being led to its death by a child playing at war.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: As with the rest of the series, certain parts of the book were played out as roleplaying game campaigns first. In this book, per Word of God, most of the Karsa Orlong segment in the first part was taken from such a section, where Steven Erikson deliberately distorted the descriptions to the detriment of the person playing as Karsa. Eventually, the player got fed up and, in a moment of frustration, decided to attack an important character who was just introduced. Thus, the scene where the Tiste Edur on Silanda are killed was created, setting the stage for their appearance in Deadhouse Gates.
- Retired Badass: Karsa Orlong meets Keeper, better known as Urko Crust, who has retired to a lonely tower a ways outside of Ehrlitan to collect and rebuild what amounts to dinosaur fossils. He's still got a mean punch, though, as Karsa finds out first hand.
- Scaled Up: The Tiste Liosan Osserc veers into a dragon in order to fly his son L'oric, who had come seeking him unbidden, out of the crumbling memory of the desert Raraku, since it's much easier for dragons to travel between realms and Osserc wants to get rid of L'oric again as soon as possible.
- Traumatic Haircut: Trull Sengar receives one in the prologue. Among the Tiste Edur, shaving a warrior's head and treating it so that the hair will never grow back again is a sign of casting out said warrior and deleting him from the tribe's memory.
- Villain Protagonist: Karsa Orlong, whose Point of View is used exclusively during the first quarter of the book, comes from a culture that glorifies rape, murder and violence in general, and his adherence to their customs is considered extreme even by his friends. His perspective starts out as unambiguously villainous, which, as mentioned above, was done deliberately. However, Karsa does undergo a certain amount of Character Development throughout the course of the novel and eventually becomes something of an Anti-Villain (though this may just be due to a case of being A Lighter Shade of Black).